Pablo Escobar is one of the most ruthless people in history. Growing up poor in Colombia, he rose to become the world’s biggest cocaine distributor, building his vast fortune on the bodies of competitors and bribes of policemen and politicians. At his height, he controlled real estate, billions of dollars, and his own personal army.
As far as historical figures go, Escobar’s story is ripe for a big-screen adaptation. He even went out like a movie villain: In 1993, Colombian forces killed Escobar in a hail of Scarface-esque gunfire. But a good story doesn’t always mean it’s ready for Hollywood.
Previous attempts, including one by Oliver Stone and another by Joe Carnahan, have been left in the dust. Surprisingly, it took the gumption of a first-time feature director named Andrea Di Stefano to finally take on and release the tale of Pablo onto the world. But instead of a straight biopic, the Italian filmmaker decided to attack the project from a unique angle: by observing Escobar’s callousness and power through the eyes of two fictionalized doe-eyed lovers (Josh Hutcherson and Claudia Traisac), one of whom happens to be the niece of the man in charge.
When it came to casting Escobar, Di Stefano had to find a strong actor who could embody the brutality of the late kingpin. His first choice: actor Benicio Del Toro, who knows a thing or two about portraying historical figures, having done so for Steven Soderbergh in the film Che.
“I think he’s one of the most talented actors who ever existed,” Di Stefano tells The Daily Beast. “I really believe that there are few actors in American cinema after the Second World War who can play these kind of characters. There’s Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, De Niro, Pacino [and Del Toro].” In Paradise Lost, Del Toro completely embodies the terrifying nature of his real-life counterpart, while also balancing out Escobar’s more charitable side: the one who donated to schools and helped build soccer fields, the one some Colombians still hail as a saint.
I sat down with Del Toro ahead of the premiere of Paradise Lost at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about his transformation into the infamous kingpin, the horror Escobar inflicted on his own family and people, and the strange duality between being considered a villain and a hero. Del Toro also spent some time reflecting on the overwhelming success of Guardians of the Galaxy (he portrayed The Collector) along with not knowing who Howard the Duck is.
There are many different opinions when it comes to Pablo Escobar. Some consider him a saint, others a murderer. Some both. Where do you go for research when there are competing opinions?
Well, you try to understand those who understand him as some kind of saint. You try to understand why some people go that way, and why they consider him the devil. And then you draw from that. But it is clear why they consider him some Robin Hood and others considered him the devil. The bad stuff he did outweighs the good.
Yeah, on one hand he donated to schools, helped the poor and communities…
He helped the communities, built neighborhoods for poor people, gave them housing, built many soccer fields. He understood people in a poor country. He understood the needs of the people. When he started he was bringing in, not drugs, he was kind of bringing in merchandise; sneaking it into the country from other places. And he started to include whatever his profit was to give a percentage to the workers, and the workers immediately liked him because the guy before him didn’t do that. He just paid the workers a flat fee, nothing really, and he got all the wealth. So Pablo started to share some of the gains with the workers so the workers wanted to work with him, because he was fair.
In the beginning he seemed to be a combination politician/businessman/philanthropist.
Right, and then a killer [Laughs].
Ha, well, yet, that too. His sense of competition quickly turned into eliminating the opposition. And then eventually he made a mistake for his own sake, the fact that he ran for politics. That I think was his downfall. And the rest is history, because he basically declared war on a country.
Then there was the international manhunt later.
Yeah, he brought the country down to its knees. He got the country to do basically what he wanted to do. Because they were trying to extradite him to America. America wanted him but he managed to stop that and he turned himself in. He goes to jail but that was a jail that he controlled.
It’s interesting it’s taken this long to see Pablo Escobar on the big screen. There have been many projects in the works, one of which was from Oliver Stone. Did you and him ever talk about Pablo while you were shooting Savages?
I think we did talk a little bit about it. I think he did have a project, and I actually did talk to him about that project that he had. But it’s all about what angle you’re going to take with Pablo Escobar. And I thought the angle with this project, which is fiction, was interesting. The fact that you could go into this family man and really reveal a charming man or a man you can like, and then suddenly he’s a nightmare. I think that Andrea’s story is grounded in almost everything that we see Pablo doing. I thought that added to this Pablo Escobar story. Because it’s not really his story. I mean, it is his story, but it’s seen through the eyes of someone who’s engaged to his niece. So that was the angle that I think this movie had that made me want to jump into it.
Would you have done it if it was just a straight biopic?
It depends. It depends who is going to be involved and how truthful it is. Just because it is a biopic, sometimes people take liberties. This is like the opposite. The writer and the director, Andrea, he’s writing a fictionalized story. But then, most of everything in the film is kind of based on the truth.
You still get a flavor of his brutality, though, and the murders he ordered.
Yeah, you get a flavor of his brutality, you get a flavor of his family life, you get a flavor of him helping the people. In the film he builds this clinic and he’s talking to the people, saying, “I help you out because I come from poor beginnings.” So you get to see a little bit of the Robin Hood thing and his family life, and then his ruthlessness. But at the end it’s a movie, and you’ve got to make it work for what it is.
Did you travel to Medellin, Pablo Escobar’s hometown, for this?
No. I have been to Colombia before, and I know a little bit. But there is plenty of stuff about Escobar out there where you can learn about him.
What about speaking with any surviving family members?
Any particular reason for not doing that?
I don’t think we had time. I did another film based on a true historical figure…
Yeah, Che. And that one I was involved in every aspect. But this one is not the same.
But Che was also a much longer project too.
Yeah, and it was much more difficult. Che is much more complicated than Pablo. It’s a different thing. But my involvement in that one was really…I needed to know more about it. I needed to know much more about him than this one.
You got right under the wire working with Steven Soderbergh before he decided to stop directing feature films.
Thank god, yeah [Laughs].
You’ve had a pretty big year already with Guardians of the Galaxy, and then you have this coming out in November along with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.
Yeah, [Guardians] was very cool.
How has the Guardians reception been so far from your perspective?
I have never had people look at a movie and go “Oh, you’re No. 1 [at the box office] this week!” It’s like, What? That’s the first time I have been part of a movie like this. I mean I have been in movies that have been expensive but not number one the way this movie has. It’s like Oh you’re not No. 1. And then suddenly it’s You’re back at No. 1! It was just very cool and I am very happy for being part of that movie. I really enjoyed working with those guys, and hopefully I will be part of another one of those. But it’s different for me, and it’s kind of cool. I really enjoyed the film too.
I interviewed Al Pacino a couple days ago and he said he loved Guardians of the Galaxy.
Yeah, I think he called it “inventive.”
Wow, you interviewed Al? Was he here [in Toronto]?
He was. He had two movies here: The Humbling and Manglehorn.
He would have been a great Pablo!
Definitely, although he kind of did with…
…With Scarface, yeah. Or The Godfather.
So did you know who Howard the Duck was before Guardians came out?
Nope. I didn’t even know it was going to be on the screen. And I have seen the scene, it’s just really funny. Because when I shot it, there was nothing in there, and no one told me there was going to be Howard the Duck.
That’s funny. So did they just redact that part from the script?
That’s the only thing that I really didn’t know, that Howard the Duck was going to be in that scene. But the rest was pretty straightforward. And you know, working with James Gunn was a lot of fun, and Chris Pratt, and Zoe [Saldana]. I really enjoyed the film myself.
Are you set to do any more Marvel films?
Not at this point. Fingers crossed, though.
And then you also have Inherent Vice coming up, where you play a lawyer.
Yep, Sauncho. Haven’t seen it, but I hear it’s very good. I had a lot of fun working with PTA and Joaquin and Josh Brolin.
You’ve played a lawyer before, too, with the underrated Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. That film completely flew under the radar when it came out.
Oh, that movie didn’t completely fly under the radar, it was below the radar.
It has turned into a cult hit, though.
Yeah! I really liked doing the movie and had the pleasure of talking to Hunter S. Thompson. That was very enjoyable, to have Hunter enjoy the movie.
Your character, Oscar Zeta Acosta, wasn’t actually supposed to go on that trip to begin with, right? In real life, it was supposed to be artist Ralph Steadman.
Have you read any of Zeta Acosta’s books?
Nope, I haven’t.
Then you’ll get it. Read Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. That’s a really good book and in that he talked about how he met Hunter. And actually Hunter told me, “You gotta do this before you do the movie.” And I read it and I was like “Oh, OK, now I get it.”